Posted by: Kash Farooq | January 8, 2012

Hunting for Logical Fallacies in a Pod Delusion report

Trying to be good skeptic, I’ve been learning Logical Fallacies. What is a Logical Fallacy? From Wikipedia:

A fallacy is incorrect argumentation in logic and rhetoric resulting in a lack of validity, or more generally, a lack of soundness.

In laypersons terms: you know when you hear an argument and it doesn’t sound quite right? There is something in the argument that you can’t put your finger on but sounds wrong? Well, there are names for all those sorts of arguments.

There are loads of free resources out there: PDFs, eBooks, etc. I highly recommend the free Hunting Humbug eBook.

As well as being a skeptic, I’m also a keen “pretend physicist” – basically, I’m studying all the astrophysics related course I can find at the Open University. I regularly contribute to the excellent crowd-sourced Pod Delusion podcast – a podcast about interesting things. I normally send in physics and astronomy related reports and interviews. My personal highlight was interviewing the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics winner, Brian Schmidt, for episode 107.

So, when I heard a report on episode 117 that argued that high energy particle physics did not make economic sense, I bristled. And I also spotted several logical fallacies both in the audio report and then further in the online comments about the report.

So, I thought I’d try to use my new found logical fallacy skills and apply them to the report and the comments. I’ll split the report and comments into various sections and discuss what I think the logical fallacy is. I’ve never done this before so feel free to correct my mistakes!

An Economic False Dilemma

The audio report states things like:

  • “High-energy particle physics is incredibly expensive”
  • “Ludicrously expensive facilities exist around the world”
  • “For me it comes down to simple economics.”

This is then followed up with statements like:

  • We should be “sorting out malaria/polio/cancer/whatever”.
  • Regardless of if there are any practical uses for particle physics discoveries, these discoveries are not going to stop a sub-Saharan African girl dying before her 3rd birthday.

The Pod Delusion report goes like this:

  1. Either we can fund particle physics, or we can fund other, useful stuff.
  2. We must fund the other, useful stuff
  3. So, we can’t fund the particle physics.

This presents what is known as a “False Dilemma” logical fallacy.

Combined with the list of diseases and the hypothetical African girl, the basic implication is that the money and/or brain power spent on particle physics could be diverted to the alleviation of disease/poverty/etc.

However, it does not follow that this is what would happen to the money if particle physics funding was stopped.

Also, this example could be used against any research or funding that is not going to save this hypothetical girl. Microprocessor research for example. Or making bigger TVs. Or funding an art museum. Or a library. Or a local youth club.

Basically, the examples given are not specific to particle physics research and funding.

 To give the author the benefit of the doubt, I think the report wanted to say:

  1. We should only spend money on things that make economic sense, or have an important practical application.
  2. Particle physics research doesn’t make economic sense or have an important practical application.
  3. So, we shouldn’t spend money on particle physics.

This isn’t a false dilemma. I would argue that premise (2) fails on factual grounds and it has not been proven that particle physics does make economic sense (more on this later).

Whilst looking for a link to False Dilemma I found this brilliant piece: “A super False Dilemma with the LHC“. It covers this exact argument and is well worth a read.

EDIT: Adam has now responded to this particular point.

“I hate to think what the carbon footprint of the LHC looks like”

This was a throw away comment during the audio report. I responded with a comment on the website:

CERN gets it’s electricity from French nuclear power, so you could argue it’s quite green.

The response:

The argument about being powered by nuclear and therefore being green doesn’t really stack up, because if CERN wasn’t using the energy from the nuclear plants, something else that’s currently using fossil fuels could use it instead.

In my comment I was specifically responding to the carbon footprint statement. I simply pointed out that it has a small carbon footprint. But the response, I believe, is an example of the “Moving the Goal Posts” logical fallacy.

The goal posts were moved to: “Something else that’s currently using fossil fuels could use that energy instead”. Perhaps that something else is pointless and could be switched off?

Side note, but sort of an important point: about 80% of electricity in France comes from Nuclear Power.

WTF!?

The audio report included this line:

Maybe physicists could work on getting computers to work. Hands up if your computer crashed this week.

I think this might be a WTF Logical Fallacy! I may have just made that one up.

This sentence genuinely left me stunned. Is the suggestion that we should make all particle physicists pack in and go and work on Windows or MacOS? OK, before I get any grief, just Windows.

I can’t think of any use for this stuff so what is the point of studying it?

This sentence, I believe, summarises both the reports and the comments. I feel it captures the overall argument.

This is an “Argument From Incredulity” (or the “Lack of Imagination” logical fallacy).

I hate to say it, but this is a common fallacy made by Creationists when arguing against Evolution.

They didn’t say that!

The report includes the phrase:

Advocates justify things on the basis that all research is useful at some time in the future

This was an easy fallacy to spot. It is a “Straw Man” logical fallacy. To “attack a straw man”, you refute something that  is superficially similar but not exactly what is being argued.

It is a straw man as advocates don’t say that all research will be useful at some time. History shows us that a lot of research will be useless. But we don’t know which will be useless and which research will useful.

“We’ve known about quarks, neutrinos, etc for about 50 years now and as far as I’m aware there are no practical uses of any of them yet.”

Something bugged me about this sentence from the online comment discussion. I thought there was a logical fallacy in there, but couldn’t put my finger on it. The assertion is that there is only a point in doing the research if we can find a use for, say, a quark.

I think it redirects the argument towards only looking at the end point (the production and study of quarks and neutrinos). The statement completely ignores the economic benefits of the technology that has been invented during the pursuit of fundamental particles.

Say particle physics costs £1x per year and produces (unuseable) quarks, neutrinos, etc. Perhaps the technologies developed to produce and detect these quarks brings in £10x per year as spin-offs? I don’t know the figures, but this possibility has not been discussed/dismissed in the report.

I asked Peter Silk (#ff!), who studied philosophy and knows a thing or two about logical fallacies, to take a look at this. Here is what he came back with. It’s very clever:

I don’t think it’s a straw man. It would be a straw man fallacy if the implication is that scientists are supposed to be doing this in order to find particles to put to practical use, which nobody is claiming, but I’m not sure the report suggests that is what people are claiming. Instead it is saying that unless people can put the particles to use, the research isn’t worthwhile or cost effective. It could be a sneakily hidden false dichotomy fallacy, without stating the dilemma explicitly but by implying it: either the particles can be used or the research is not cost effective. But there’s a third/fourth/fifth/etc scenario where the particles can’t be used, but the research is still cost effective.

It could possibly simply be an ‘irrelevant thesis’ or ignoratio elenchi, where the point itself might well be conceded (let’s say that nobody ever finds a use for a neutrino) but that has nothing to do with the question of whether the process of conducting the research is useful/profitable. All it does is make it harder to justify to the people funding the research, who are using less sophisticated versions of the same fallacies we’re seeing here.

Side note: the number of spin-offs from particle physics is astounding. You would be amazed at the wide ranging applications that have appeared in the last 50 years as direct result of particle hunting. Applications that you really wouldn’t associate with particle physics. And I’m not just referring to the World Wide Web.

In conclusion

I don’t normally get involved in SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET confrontations. I’m a non-confrontational sort of guy. And I particularly do not want to get into confrontations with fellow Pod Delusion contributors. But this report really bugged me. The LHC is this generation’s Apollo Moon Landing. It’s that important. And as far as I know, getting to the Moon didn’t directly achieve anything. It was the technology invented to achieve the goal that made it worth the effort.

Sorry Adam.

Many thanks to Peter Silk for helping me with this post.

About these ads

Responses

  1. Kash, I like your post except your response to the “no one’s found a use for a quark” argument. The “large scale research produces spin-offs” is a counter-argument, not a problem in the original argument. It’s a pretty weak counter-argument too, since it doesn’t directly address the original argument, merely provides a path to a different conclusion.

    I think the logical fallacy may in fact be equivocation – equating “it is useful to know about a particle” with “the particle can be used if we know about it”. Knowledge about particles smaller than electrons has been fundamental to applications ranging from imaging to circuit fabrication. [Caveat - I don't have enough detailed knowledge of either of these to guarantee exactly what knowledge is necessary, but the point is that knowledge from particle research can be directly useful without "using the particles"]. As well as the logical fallacy, there is a basic error of fact – we of course use these particles constantly even without knowing about them. The error of fact highlights the equivocation that the real issue is using the knowledge not using the particles.

    • Hi Andrew.

      Thanks for your comment. Interesting point about equivocation, imaging and circuit fabrication (which ties into Sean Ellis’ recent interview with the ARM scientist).

      I did say in the my post that I didn’t think the “no one’s found a use for a quark” statement was a logical fallacy – I accept your point that all I did was provide a counter-argument.

      But the point I wanted to make was that I think the statement/argument is irrelevant. I’m not sure how else I could have made that point.
      Wouldn’t the quark statement be the same as: “No one has found a use for the rock they brought back from the Moon, therefore going to the Moon was pointless”. Yes, bringing the rock back didn’t pay for the mission, but that wasn’t the point.

      As you may have guessed, there is a response Pod Delusion report coming up. It is completely different from this “Logical Fallacy” post, and instead concentrates on the benefits of “Curiosity-driven Research”.

      Kash.

  2. Hi Kash

    Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed response to my PD piece. Please don’t worry about appearing confrontational, because you really don’t. It’s totally clear to me that your post is intended in the spirit of wishing to resolve an honest intellectual disagreement, which is a fine and honourable thing.

    So to summarise the nature of our disagreement, I said many things in my PD piece, some of which you probably agree with and others of which you obviously don’t, but the important thing is that you disagree with my conclusions. You believe that funding things like the LHC is a perfectly reasonable use of taxpayers’ money, whereas I don’t. Is that a pretty good summary of how we disagree?

    I find it interesting when 2 rational people, both armed with good information, come to different conclusions about this sort of thing. I’m confident that you’ve thought about this subject carefully and in a rational way, and I like to think that I’ve done the same, so why should we disagree? I hope we can discuss further and find out exactly why we come to different conclusions. It may take a little while to do that, as this discussion isn’t taking place in real time and I dare say we’re both busy people, but I suspect the intellectual satisfaction of doing so will make it worthwhile. Are you up for that?

    It seems to me that there are 4 possible reasons (which are by no means mutually exclusive) why we may disagree. They are as follows:

    1. Facts
    We may disagree about some of the facts. If that’s true, then one of us is obviously WRONG ON THE INTERNET. Facts are, after all, facts. If there are any facts about which we disagree, it should be reasonably straightforward, given that we’re both approaching this in the spirit of honest intellectual enquiry, to figure out which of us was wrong. If one of us was wrong about any facts that are sufficiently important to the overall argument, it’s possible that we’d then reach agreement on the overall conclusions.

    2. Assumptions
    Some relevant facts may be unknown or even unknowable, in which case one of us may have relied on assumptions about those facts. Possibly one of us made a completely unrealistic assumption, and if that can be shown, then that’s pretty much as good as being wrong. But it’s also possible that we have made different, but equally plausible, assumptions. It would be interesting to see if we could reach a point where one of us says “I believe that my assumption is more reasonable than your assumption, but if we started from your assumption, then I too would reach the conclusions that you did”.

    3. Logic
    In getting from the facts and assumptions to the conclusions, some steps of logic are necessary. Those steps of logic may be correct, or they may be logical fallacies. Obviously you think I’ve been guilty of some logical fallacies, as that’s the main thrust of your post. Now, I don’t claim any great expertise in logic, and it’s occurred to me that this raises a question that I’ve not thought of before: is it necessarily true that 2 rational people discussing the same logical step would always, after adequate discussion, agree on whether that step is correct or fallacious? I’m not sure about that. Most of my exposure to logical fallacies is when people are WRONG ON THE INTERNET, and use such glaring logical fallacies (eg paracetamol causes liver failure in overdose, therefore homeopathy works) that it’s totally obvious what the logical fallacy is. I suspect that if I am guilty of logical fallacies, then they’re a bit more subtle than that (or at least I hope so!) So I’m not sure whether we could expect to reach agreement on the steps of logic in the same way that we can expect to reach agreement on the facts. I suspect that might be by far and away the most interesting part of this discussion.

    4. Opinion
    Some of the parts of the argument may simply be matters of judgement an opinion. In those areas, it may be quite reasonable for us to disagree. I hope that if at the end of this discussion we still disagree about the conclusions, then we have traced the disagreement to a part (or parts) of the argument that relies on a matter of simple opinion where we hold different views, in which case we should simply agree to disagree.

    I think this discussion could become rather unwieldy if I try to answer all your points at once, so what I propose to do is that to answer each of your points in turn. We can explore each point until we either agree about it or identify a matter of opinion where we can agree to disagree, and then move on to the next one.

    However, before I start, can I check that you’re with me so far? Do you actually want to get into this discussion in the first place, and do you think what I’ve written above is reasonable? If there’s anything I’ve said so far with which you disagree, I suspect subsequent discussions would be easier if we can clear up that point of disagreement first so that we’re at least agreed on the ground rules.

    • Thanks Adam. This is an excellent comment with some great points and ideas.

      Yes, I agree that everything you have written is reasonable.
      And that is a very interesting thought: can two rational people come to different conclusions if logic is used. I would say :no they can’t – if they agree on the assumptions.

      I know I made some assumptions.
      For example, I have no idea if spin-off technologies bring in more money than the outgoings. Perhaps this is impossible to know. Perhaps stuff gets created by industry after a private sector scientist reads a LHC scientific paper and that usage is unrecorded. But, as I said, there are a number of direct technological advances that we do know about (PET and MRI scanners to name a couple).

      In terms of what happens next, I don’t know. I guess it depends on our “busy-ness” levels… I’ve been (unsuccessfully so far) trying to cut back on this sort of stuff so I can concentrate on OU studies…

  3. *gets popcorn*

  4. I just thought I’d like to mention a spinout from CERN that has vastly improved the life of billions of people on this planet.

    It is called the world wide web. Yes, it’s full of trolls and pr0n and LOLCATS but it has brought immeasurable benefit to the world.

    How you put a fiscal value on the internet, I don’t know. But it is going to be a big number. *Really big*

    This is an discussion essentially about the benefits of basic science, versus science with a clear, applicable endpoint.

    It takes some guts to fund basic science when you don’t really know what use any information will be – but many of the biggest scientific breakthroughs have come about from “science for science’s sake”

    This is a worthy gawp -> http://public.web.cern.ch/public/en/about/Fundamental-en.html

    • The World Wide Web is an obvious example, but I reckon it could easily be dismissed…

      You could argue that wherever Tim Berners Lee was working at the time (assuming they needed to share data across the Internet) would have invented the WWW.
      Especially as he is a computer scientist rather than a physicist.

      • You *could* argue that wherever TBL was, the WWW would have happened, but I’m not sure that in itself isn’t fallacious (sort of retrospective determinism???).

        TBL was at CERN and the WWW was a positive outcome from that. That is a fact (see Adam’s #1).

        Trying to argue about things that have happened in the past (when we have strong evidence of their occurrence) is pointless is it not? Yes, the WWW may have arisen from an inconceivable number of people, situations and organisations – but the fact (that word again) is that it was TBL at CERN who invented html and thus the WWW.

      • You make a good point. I’m just trying to think of arguments that may be thrown at this example!

      • To add to xtaldave’s comment, which Kash hints at. What sort of project would TBL have to have been working on to invent the WWW if he were not at CERN? It would have to be a large international project with a substantial budget.

        In an alternative universe is someone lamenting the money spent on the Global Telescopic Array, and saying that the WWW doesn’t justify the money that could have been spent on a particle collider instead?

  5. I think the inspirational aspects of scientific endeavour are not to be sniffed at, too. Maybe a failure to consider all of the effects of doing the research and only focusing on whether the findings of the research themselves are profitable is too narrow a focus. There’s a fallacy associated with narrowly focused arguments, but I can’t quite think what it is.

    Some of the least immediately practical endeavours are the ones that really capture the imagination. Putting humans in space (or much else in space, except for satellites) doesn’t really have much of an immediate application (despite having a lot of technological ‘side-benefits’), but it has doubtlessly been one of the most inspirational areas of science, with plenty of people going into the field who were originally inspired by watching the moon landings or later seeing something like ‘Cosmos’.

    I think the story of the LHC has captured the public imagination to an extent, too. Most people don’t really have a firm idea of what the experiments are doing (myself included, honestly), but they seem to have an understanding that it is going towards verifying some fundamental facts about what stuff is made of, and something about that keeps it in the news even if people can’t follow the science. I can’t help but imagine that there is a small but not insignificant portion of teenagers following this story of the search for the Higgs and wondering if they too don’t want to be a part of discovering the fundamental laws of nature. And maybe they’ll become the next person to invent something as incredibly revolutionary as the Internet.

    It’s impossible to put a value on this inspirational dimension to the work, of course; it’s far too unpredictable. That makes it hard to bank on, but I think we can at least say with a fair degree of confidence that many of the scientists working today would not be doing so had they not first been fascinated by some science which, at least on the face of it, had no practical application.

    • *applause*
      +1
      LIKE
      RT

    • That’s actually quite a good point, Peter, and one I hadn’t thought of. I agree that there is a value in inspiring the next generation of scientists. I’m reminded of some stuff I heard recently (in fact I think it might have been in another Pod Delusion piece, although I wouldn’t swear to that) about the BBC Microcomputer, which was credited (probably rightly) for inspiring huge numbers of my generation to become computer scientists and leading to many of the awesome advances in computer technology that we’ve seen in the past couple of decades.

      Now, how to put a monetary value on that inspiration? Well, that’s the tricky bit, isn’t it? I guess the first thing we’d need to know is whether projects like the LHC really do make a difference and inspire young minds to do great things, but that’s probably very difficult to research, and in any case would take years. But still, probably a fascinating research project for some social scientists somewhere. If only their budget hadn’t been nicked by all those pesky physicists…

  6. I was interested in the retraining point. Isn’t that a fallacy too.

    Can you really take a very clever person who understands the deep mathematics of particle theory, and retrain them to do biology. Or even solar power?
    I imagine some of them you could, but does being good at particle physics make you a potentially good biologist, or even a good solar power engineeer?

    Moreover – would they want to given a free choice, or would you be as likely to lose physicists to banking, accountancy or even art maybe?

    • Or they become TV science documentary presenters. I can think of a few…

  7. Looking forward to the discussion, but I thought I would chip in with the fact that re-allocating “physicists” to do “other physics” can somewhat akin to dropping an educational theorist into a tribe of Kalahari bushmen to study them because, hey, it’s all sociology, right?

    There’s a really interesting underlying point in Adam’s report that I’d be interested to see the discussion cover – particle physics does seem to have sold the idea of large experiments in a way that other fields hasn’t. I often joke that in my field (system safety) we really need to put two aerospace companys into the lab to compare them. For the total price of the LHC (including operations) we _could_ buy two midsized aerospace companys.

  8. [...] Adam has started replying to the points I made in my previous post: Hunting for Logical Fallacies in a Pod Delusion report. [...]

  9. Hi Kash,

    I really enjoyed reading this. I imagine that I went through pretty much the same thought process when I initially heard Adam’s report. For want of a better word I thought he must be trolling. At least he provided a nice workout for us logical fallacy spotters.
    I also enjoyed your piece in the latest episode.
    Keep up the good work.

    ‘I hate to say it, but this is a common fallacy made by Creationists when arguing against Evolution.’ woah, careful to avoid the insinuated Ad hominem, haha.

    Neil

  10. Reblogged this on iLook China.

  11. [...] Hunting for Logical Fallacies in a Pod Delusion report (thethoughtstash.wordpress.com) [...]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,602 other followers

%d bloggers like this: